We decided to do a three days trip to a town of Kyaukme after hearing recommendation from swedish Isabelle. Kyaukme is small town in Shan state between Pyin Oo Lwin and Hsipaw. Train travelling between Mandalay and Hsipaw can be recommended! Landscape is propably the best I saw in whole Myanmar. Train left Mandalay at 4am and went over hills and rural villages. Actually travelling by train in Myanmar is an experience worth having. Train network covers the country pretty well. Trains move relatively slow (you can do the same journey by bus in half time or less!) and ride is bumpy in every direction. (You can imagine Linnanmäki’s rollercoaster now.) There is two classes in the train; the upper and the ordinary class. We took upper class seats as we did mostly 12-16 hour journeys. Upper class seats are wider and upholstered, ordinary class seats are wooden benches. Ordinary class was always crowded of local people travelling with the most unbelievable carriages…sometimes they even had chicken with them. We saw as well how one car was loaded full of goats!
Vendors selling local strawberries and other foods and drinks through the windows
As many tourists hit to Hsipaw in order to do trekking we hopped out of the train couple of stations earlier and wished to organise our own trek in Kyaukme. Once again we didn’t have any bookings made in advance but things sorted out well and we got a guide from our guesthouse. Joy is a 26 years old Shan guy who has many years experience as a guide. We were thinking about doing actual trekking but when Joy told about motorbike trekking we decided to go for it instead! We had a 20 year old SaiSai as driver since neither of us knew how to drive motorbike. (I thought though that with one evening practise it would have been possible for us to drive bikes ourselves… :D) Having a driver turned out to be an excellent decision when we headed to the dusty routes and narrow paths which squirmed over the Shan hills.
There is 37 spirits or ‘nats’ in Myanmar. Buddhists built these shrines so that nats could rest where-ever they want. There is shrines in every village. It is believed that you can see nats only with purest heart.
We stayed overnight in small Shan village with a local family. Family didn’t speak a word of english nor we spoke Shan (except hi – mae son khaa, bye bye – la lai khaa or thank you – chom jau khaa, which Joy and Sai Sai taught us). We knew these words in burmese but it’s not considered nice to speak burmese in Shan state. Each state in Myanmar have their own language and ethnic minorities still practise their old traditions in each state. They rarely had tourists in that village we stayed and first time I really felt that I was far away from home! There was two families living under the same roof…what we heard – total of 14 people. In Myanmar families are large and it’s common to have two or three generations under the same roof of a two- or three-room house. People don’t have their own bedrooms and same room has many functions; during daytime room can serve as a kitchen and livingroom and bamboo mats are placed next to each other when it’s time for sleep.
We spent evening in the ‘living room’ with the family and two chicken which they treated like pets. It was pretty dark – one dim bulb in the middle of the room. Steam and smoke coming from kitchen filled the air. Most burmese still cook with open fire (also in restaurants) and in homes fireplace is often embedded to floor-level. Since villages are poor they have to control food amounts. Rice is often served with one or two small and bony pieces of meat with many kinds of sour vegetable sidedishes. Especially in Shan state they eat a lot of leaves and our dinner included a lot of rice, soup, eggs and two kind of curries made of these leaves.
Around ¾ of Myanmar population are rural-dwellers and much of a local life in going on around villages and farming the countryside. Main farming products in Myanmar are rice, corn, tea and opium. Tea is the main income for tribes living in the hills. We saw trucks carrying workers to tea plantations. Joy told that tea pickers don’t get paid in money but in tea. Half of the amount of leaves they pick they can keep.
There is constant internal conflicts in Myanmar many of them taking place in Shan state. Joy was talking with the father of our homestay about recent conflicts between burmese soldiers and Shan rebels. Fights between burmese soldiers and ethnic minorities have been going on already 67 years and it seems that there is no end to them. Previous week rebels had killed burmese soldiers just 30 minutes drive away where we stayed. Joy’s previous trekker group had accidentally overstayed at the same place with 60-70 rebels. There hadn’t been any problem though, they had been smoking cigarettes peacefully together with the rebels. Conflicts are common in Shan state, almost every week either soldiers or rebels get killed. Situation is even worse near China border where opium is widely grown. Joy told that rebels are good for these villages…they protect their peoples’ rights. Before there were any rebels burmese soldiers came to these villages and forced villagers to give whatever they wanted, if it was food, women or money, they didn’t care. Joy told that if a Shan family has more than one child, one needs to join the rebels. Even many peace agreements are made in management level between rebels and soldiers, it seems that in the grassroot level fights can’t be stopped.
Joy’s dream was to have his own guesthouse. He had made some actions towards it already. He had bought a land for 4500 dollars last year. He wished to build 12 authentic bamboo houses there. We visited a couple of villages where Joy went to ask about the building costs of villagers’ houses. He wished to build a small summer house for himself first. Simple bamboo house could be built in Kyaukme for 1500 dollars including materials and carpenter’s salary. In Myanmar basic salary is around 200 dollars a month. I wish to be back in Kyaukme after 5-10 years to see how’s it going with Joy’s business. As determined as he seemed, I’m sure it will be a success!